Don't Start a Riot

Fourteen years after Bradley Nowell's tragic death, Sublime (With Rome) are back and headed for a town near you

“He would have a prescription bagful of drugs,” Shea says. “He had a patch that was supposed to go on his back to sedate him, and then he’d take off his shirt, and you’d see he’d stuck these patches all over his back. He was a mess.”

During concerts, Nowell could barely play. “He would just sit there in a chair, and it was bass and drums, guitar—not really—and Brad did his best to sing,” Shea recalls. “We wouldn’t stay in hotels. Girls would let us stay at their house, and the whole neighborhood would show up, and the house would get thrashed.”

Sometimes, Nowell would curl up in the rear of Shea’s van and sleep for hours on end. No matter how long he stayed off heroin, though, Nowell would always relapse whenever he visited San Francisco. “He could barely walk for a week, and all of a sudden, he comes out high-fiving everybody, and he gets on guitar and [he’s] soloing and singing,” Shea says, “but he had hit the neighborhood when nobody was looking.”

John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album
John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album

Once, while on tour, Nowell shared a needle with a friend who overdosed and had to be sent to the hospital. “I had a talk with him that night,” Gaugh recalls. “‘That is something you keep to yourself. Don’t share that with other people. If you send someone else to the hospital, I’m going to kick your fucking ass.’ I didn’t want him to have that on his conscience, and I knew Brad didn’t want to hurt anyone.” So, a few months later, when Nowell gave some heroin to a girl who nearly died, Gaugh followed through on his promise. “I served him up a good one,” he says. “It didn’t do any good, though.”

In the summer of 1995, Sublime headlined the Warped Tour, performing to tens of thousands of screaming fans. The band’s now-legendary wild antics—as well as those of Nowell’s pet dalmatian, Louie, who bit people and relieved himself onstage during performances—grew more unhinged, and several bands threatened to walk, so Sublime were cut from the tour. Nowell’s heroin problem followed the band to Texas, where they recorded what would be their platinum-selling third album. Halfway through, producer David Kahne, whose credits included the genre-defining 1988 ska-punk album by Fishbone, Truth and Soul, had no choice but to send the strung-out vocalist home.

Nowell’s widow, Troy DenDekker, says this low point marked a turnaround of sorts. A fan of Sublime who grew up in San Diego, DenDekker began dating Nowell in late 1994 and had just given birth to his son, Jakob. With advance money from MCA Records, the couple had moved to a beachfront house in Surfside, and Nowell, a lifelong surfer, seemed happier than ever.

“While I was pregnant, he stayed clean for six months, which was the longest he’d ever stayed clean,” DenDekker recalls. In May 1996, Nowell and DenDekker were married at a Hawaiian-themed ceremony in Las Vegas. “He was clean at our wedding, but then, four days later, they put him on the road.”

Three days into the tour, Sublime performed a show at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma and spent the night in Chico. Wilson recalls waking up in a house where the band’s hosts, a couple of girls they’d met the previous night, were smoking crack. “That was the breakfast scene,” he says. “And that’s probably where Brad scored his dope.” The next day, the trio drove to San Francisco, where Nowell and Gaugh shared a room at a beachfront hotel in preparation for a concert in town the next day.

Nowell, who was fresh in his sobriety, was exhilarated at the prospect of their upcoming European tour, Gaugh recalls. “He was like, ‘Man, we did good,’” Gaugh says. “‘I’m going to go out and party.’”

Wilson spent the night in a motor home parked next to the hotel. At dawn the following morning, Nowell knocked loudly on Wilson’s door, hoping he’d join him to walk the dogs. “He had probably been up all night,” Wilson recalls. “It was a beautiful morning, but I was like, ‘Fuck you’ and went back to sleep. I was hung-over. I was the last person to see him alive.”

It was May 25, 1996. Nowell was 28 years old. Gaugh woke up at about 11 a.m. that morning in the hotel room. “I was asleep in the other bed,” he says. “When I woke up, he was laying half in the bed, half off.”

*     *     *

Barely a year old when his father died, Jakob Nowell is now 15 and sports a jaunty Mohawk. Despite all attempts by various family members to keep him from becoming a musician, he has already started playing the guitar. DenDekker says she has even taken him to see a couple of Sublime tribute bands, like Badfish and 40 Oz to Freedom. But, she says, Jakob isn’t wild about the fact his dad’s former band have reunited under the same name with a new lead singer.

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